Defenders never quite get the credit they deserve. They often fall under the radar in favor of the flashier strikers and playmakers or attacking midfielders who tend to top "best-of" lists. So today, we here at Bleacher Report are saluting the fine men of the footballing world who know how to hold the line and strike fear into the hearts of the game's top attackers.
So here they are, your fantastic 49, in no particular order. Although there is something of a gradient of quality here, this is intended to be a list and discussion of 49 of the best defenders in football instead of a set-in-stone ranking. We thought that with so much talent to go around, it would be better to turn it over to you, the readers, to determine who on the list is the tops of the tops and why and discuss the players' skills at hand instead of getting so wrapped up a specific order.
As always, if there are any omissions, additions or anything else you'd like to discuss, have at it in the comments.
Before we get started, here are a few fantastic young defenders who have been impressing as of late, and who could, if given time to develop and further experience on the pitch, could very well crack this list at this time next year.
Phil Jones and Chris Smalling: The two young defenders at the heart of the new generation of "Fergie's Fledglings," Manchester United's Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have been impressing left and right, and both can count Fabio Capello among their fans, as each have already had appearances for England so far this season.
Martin Kelly: The versatile 21-year-old fullback has shown incredible promise, making a strong start to the season following some struggles with injury. All four of his appearances for Liverpool so far this season have ended in victories for the Reds, with his first resulting in a clean sheet. Fellow recent addition José Enrique looks strong at left-back, and should Liverpool return to the top four and get more exposure in Europe, he could very well be a candidate for this list as well.
Kieran Gibbs: A graduate of the Arsenal youth academy, left-back Kieran Gibbs has begun to show more consistency and confidence on the pitch as of late. If he continues to improve, he could very well be one of the top defenders in the Premiership in the future.
Mamadou Sakho: The 21-year-old Paris Saint-Germain centre-back has already established himself as a leader and a hot prospect for the January transfer window. A highly diligent, highly physical player, Sakho has emerged as a capable leader at PSG despite his age—so much so, that upon his arrival at the club, he became the youngest captain in Ligue 1 history, a title he still holds today.
Micah Richards: The Manchester City centre-back hasn't gotten a whole lot of time in the spotlight in favor of the bigger, badder Vincent Kompany, but his versatility and strength made impressed when he started at City at the age of 14 and became the youngest defender ever to get an England cap in 2006 and now, as part of a re-energized City side. If he can break back into the first team and continue to deliver, he's certainly a contender to be on a future incarnation of this list.
These two start us off as two defenders who, in their prime, were world-class. Although they have both fallen off in recent times, as Roberto Carlos has seen a decline in form and Jamie Carragher has largely been absent due to injury, their contributions to their respective clubs and the game itself still merited a spot on this list.
The Brazilian left-back may be in the twilight of his career, most recently making headlines as one of the first big-money summer transfers for Russian Premier League side Anzhi Makhachkala, but there's a reason Roberto Carlos was instantly made captain upon his arrival in Dagestan, and it's not just for fan appeal.
Arguably one of the best left-backs to ever play the game, Roberto Carlos was a force at Palmeiras, Real Madrid (where he helped the Merengues win the Champions League in 2002) and on the Brazilian national team. A consistently strong defender, Carlos was also capable of scoring goals—94 of them in his career, to be exact.
He may not be in the best form of his career, but his impressive displays throughout his career preserve his spot on the list.
Rumors have begun to surface that his career at Liverpool may be drawing ever closer to a close, but at Anfield, fans still dream of a team of Carraghers.
Throughout his career at Liverpool, Carra played every possible position a defender could play and has the second-highest number of appearances for the Reds in the club's history. When he plays in top form, his passion and commitment to the men in red are unparalleled, and he still plays something of a leadership role to the multitude of promising young defenders making their way through the ranks at Liverpool.
The Barcelona defender and midfielder has "versatility" written all over him—he's one of the few truly ambidextrous players in world football. He hasn't quite had the same level of impact at Barcelona as he did in his five years at Sevilla, where he made a huge impact on the side's two UEFA Cup victories and two Copa del Rey trophies. He was part of Barcelona's quadruple squad after joining last season, serving mostly as a substitute. If he can get a bit of first-team action in, he'll definitely maintain his spot on this list.
Ligue 1 has a tendency to get overlooked in terms of its quality players, and one veteran in particular comes to mind when talking about the French league's high-caliber defenders. Senegalese international Souleymane Diawara is one of the most decorated defenders in the league as of late, and he holds the record for the player with the most Coupe de la Ligue wins.
A capable, imposing centre-back with good pace and heading ability, Diawara has helped lead three Ligue 1 clubs to Coupe de la Ligue victories and two to Ligue 1 titles. He was a key player in Bordeaux's treble of the Ligue 1 championship, Coupe de la Ligue and Trophée des Champions in 2009, and repeated the success with Ligue 1 juggernauts Marseille, helping them win the same treble in 2010 and the League Cup again last season.
It hasn't been the best of seasons for Blackburn Rovers, but former captain Chris Samba has been the team's brightest spot for a while now. The towering defender (he stands a whopping 6'4") has been a fan favorite at Ewood Park since his arrival from Hertha Berlin in 2007. A versatile presence who can work well from box to box, Samba is consistent, an impact player if ever there was one and his heading ability is top-notch and often gets the Rovers out of serious trouble from opponents' attacks.
Rumors have abounded about a January move for Chris Samba, and some big clubs (most notably Arsenal) will probably come knocking to bring him on. Wherever he ends up, Samba is sure to make a serious impact in the defense.
Michel Bastos may seem like a strange inclusion, as he shows his finest prowess on the wing, but in recent seasons, he has proved he can expertly fill a defensive role as well.
In his inaugural season at Olympique Lyonnais, he linked up well with fellow newcomers Lisandro López and Aly Cissokho and helped Lyon maintain its strong standing within Ligue 1.
His performances at Lyon also impressed the folks in charge of the Seleção, and since then, Bastos has become a fixture on the Brazilian national team, even being named to the 2010 World Cup squad.
Ábidal has been outshined in recent seasons compared to his Barcelona teammates, and he has seen a bit of a drop in quality, but his impressive record with the Blaugrana and ability to bounce back and play following undergoing treatment for liver cancer are reasons enough to keep him on this list.
But he has seen three La Liga titles, two Champions League titles, three Supercopas de España and a Copa del Rey during his time at the Camp Nou and earned the respect of his teammates, with whom he lifted the cup after making a cameo in the last few minutes of the Champions League final in what was perhaps the most touching moment of the tournament.
There's a reason Gary Cahill's transfer saga is the January window story that just won't quit. Although his Bolton Wanderers have had a less-than-optimal season, Cahill has remained a stellar spot with his no-frills, solid tackling and his resilience, making 36 league appearances last season despite having to take time off to recover from a blood clot in his arm.
Cahill's recent impressive run of form got him a fan in Fabio Capello, who brought Cahill back to the England squad for the Euro qualifiers this fall. And the defender continued to impress, this time on the attack, when he scored the first goal for England in their qualifier against Bulgaria.
It hasn't been the most romantic of starts for Arsenal deadline day arrival Per Mertesacker, as his lack of speed has proved somewhat problematic, but when he is on form, he's a towering force who can bolster a defense and deal with set pieces excellently.
Mertesacker has helped hold off some of the strongest attacks in the world in back-to-back World Cups, both of which ended in commendable third-place finishes for his home country. He excelled at Werder Bremen, helping the club win the DFB-Pokal in 2009 and reach the finals of the UEFA Cup.
He is a great aerial defender and a very clean player, going 31 matches without a booking at the start of his Bundesliga career.
So impressive at Fenerbahçe, they made a Spanish acronym for him: "TOTA" (Talento, Orgullo, Técnico, Ambición, or in English, Talent, Pride, Technique and Ambition). As a defender, Lugano is the "TOTA"l package (See what I did there?).
Now at Paris Saint-Germain, the veteran defender from Uruguay has emerged as one of the top footballers from his home country in this generation, although his success at Fenerbahçe has somewhat been overshadowed by the club's recent controversies.
A strong leader and dead-ball specialist, Lugano has become a fan favorite everywhere he's set his feet down, including São Paulo, where he led the club to a Campeonato Paulista title and Brazilian championship during his time there. Later, at Fenerbahçe, he led the Istanbul-based club to two Turkish Süper Lig titles and two Turkish Super Cups. And he has been a fixture on the Uruguayan national team, leading La Celeste to a fourth-place finish in the 2010 World Cup, and more recently, the Copa América title.
A leader who frequently exhibits intelligence and intuition in his gameplay, Tottenham Hotspur captain Ledley King has skippered Harry Redknapp's side since 2005, and with Spurs looking in particularly fine form this year, his prowess was worth noting.
Although he has yet to win any silverware with Spurs, King is one of the club's most consistent performers (when he's fit), a calm and composed centre-back unafraid to resort to more daring tactics to beat attackers to the ball. And fans at White Hart Lane are certainly hoping King's prowess can help them return to the top four this season and the Champions League.
Clichy will undoubtedly be one of the most polarizing additions to this list, but there must be a reason he remains a topic of conversation. The left-back is either the most overrated or most underrated defender in football, depending on who you ask.
Clichy was named to the PFA Team of the Year, was a member of Arsenal's "Invincibles" squad and last year, helped lead City to their first major trophy in years when the Blue Moon took home the FA Cup. Although his discipline could probably use a bit of work (alright, a lot of work), his pace is top-notch and he can work well in tandem with attacking forces. He has yet to fully hit his stride as a player, but his day at City will come soon.
Ignazio Abate has worked his way up the ranks of the Rossoneri with speed and resonance after returning to AC Milan from a number of loan spells. A fast, uncompromising right-back with a great passing game to boot, Abate has become Massimiliano Allegri's first choice to hold the right flank.
He came into form as an impact player last season, helping the Rossoneri to with the Scudetto and the Supercoppa Italiana. And there is plenty more where that came from, from the looks of things.
Why yes, that is another AC Milan defender. Philippe Mexes has yet to make his mark with the Rossoneri after a knee injury saw him confined to the sidelines, but the Frenchman had a stellar career at AS Roma in the seasons leading up to his arrival at San Siro.
While with the Giallorossi, Mexes formed a formidable defensive partnership with Cristian Chivu, now at rival side Inter Milan. His ability to communicate and link up with the rest of the defense served Roma well, helping them win the Coppa Italia in 2007. He continued to deliver at Roma despite a few run-ins with injury, helping Roma reach a second-place finish in Serie A during the 2009-2010 season and giving them an opportunity to show off in the Champions League.
Now returning to European play with the Rossoneri, Mexes, once recovered, will continue to shine.
The man, the myth, the Art Garfunkel-meets-Sideshow Bob hair. David Luiz was signed to Chelsea for a jaw-dropping £21.5 million without having been much experience in top-flight football to his name, a rather resonant vote of confidence from the Chelsea bosses.
But from the looks of things, the versatile centre-back, who can also play at left-back, will be able to deliver on that investment. After winning the double with Benfica and being named Portuguese Liga Footballer of the Year in 2010, David Luiz began impressing at Stamford Bridge at the start of his career with two Man of the Match performances in his first several months with the Blues. Fast and solid in the air, David Luiz will be one to watch over the course of this season.
The guy's 38 and he's still got it. Just let that sink in for a second.
In his long, illustrious career at Inter Milan, Javier Zanetti has overseen a dozen trophies for the Nerazzurri, including five Scudettos, four each of the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa, a Champions League title, a UEFA Cup and a FIFA World Club Cup.
Although he's moved more into a defensive midfield role, Zanetti can still play as a full-back, and his imposing presence on the pitch has earned him a fitting pair of nicknames: "The Captain" and "The Tractor," probably for the way he steamrolls over the competition.
We haven't seen much of Aleksandar Kolarov this season as Gaël Clichy, for better or for worse (see Clichy's slide on this presentation), which is a shame, because Kolarov is a cracking left-back and perhaps one of the best in the Premiership right now.
The Serbian international positioned himself for a return to favor last month when he helped rescue City from defeat in their Champions League opener against SSC Napoli, saving the shot which would have ended the draw. A fixture on the national team and in City's resurgent, FA Cup-winning season last season, the versatile, attack-capable left-sided strongman may and should have more of a presence at Eastlands in the months to come.
The massive Benfica centre-back's nickname literally translates to "Big Luis," and Luisão, as you can probably imagine, towers over the competition. He has become a fixture on the Brazilian national team, and although his starts have been limited, he has been named to the squad for two World Cups and three Copa América competitions, one which the Brazilians won.
So far at Benfica, Luisão has seen two Liga titles, three Portuguese League Cups and a Portuguese Super Cup, and has experienced a resurgence in recent seasons, playing in 45 matches during the 2009-2010 season and leading the Eagles to the title. More recently, he has been a force in Benfica's back-to-back Champions League campaigns.
The 22-year-old Danish fortress has become a sought-after target for top-flight clubs thanks to his skill, energy and knack for long-range passing.
Kjaer impressed during the 2010 World Cup, performing well in his first two group stage matches and setting up a Nicklas Bendtner goal. Now on loan at AS Roma, he still has a ways to go and has yet to make an appearance, but expect more great things from this Bundesliga centre-back, wherever he ends up.
An impressive right-sided full-back, 23-year-old Gregory van der Wiel is another one of Ajax's defensive weapons alongside Jan Vertonghen. In spite of his age, van der Wiel has already accomplished quite a lot, including helping the Amsterdammers reach an Eredivisie title and a KNVB Cup and winning the Dutch Young Player of the Year award for his work in the 2009-2010 season.
A consistent performer whose prowess in his position has led him to be called the successor to Dutch legend Michael Reiziger, Van der Wiel's promise led him to become a regular starter for the Oranje in the 2010 World Cup, where the national team gave an impressive run and finished the competition as runners-up.
Van der Wiel has remained the first-choice right-back during the UEFA Euro 2012 qualifying matches, where he has contributed to the Dutch side's dominance in Group E, with nine wins and only one loss.
One of a number of Inter Milan defenders who made this list, Walter Samuel's nickname says it all: "The Wall."
The 33-year-old Argentine international is one of several veteran defenders making waves in Serie A, but of all of them, Samuel is likely one of the most consistent.
A starter for the Argentina national team and for Inter Milan, Samuel's performances are usually blunder-free, and it shows in his record. He helped lead the Nerazzurri to five consecutive Scudettos, three Coppa Italia titles, four Supercoppas and a Champions League title. For his impressive displays, he was named Serie A Defender of the Year in 2010.
The Manchester United centre-back-turned-entrepreneur-turned rapper has been frequently overlooked these days, and like several other defenders on this list, he remains a rather polarizing figure. An intelligent, committed defender, Ferdinand was part of a United squad that has seen a slew of Premiership titles and captained a Champions League-winning team in 2008.
And for what it's worth, he's also probably the only footballer ever who Duran Duran promised to write a song for if England advanced in the World Cup. So there's that.
Capdevila hasn't seen much glory outside of his national team appearances, but he made waves during the 2010 World Cup as one of the few first-team starters for Spain who was outside of the Real Madrid-Barcelona binary, and in that sense, the left-back, then at Villarreal, was something of a breath of fresh air.
A versatile, attack-minded, left-sided player, Capdevila played in every minute of every match for Spain during the 2010 World Cup, performing consistently and contributing to their eventually being able to hoist that coveted cup.
Now at Benfica, the 33-year-old Capdevila may have trouble breaking into first-team play, and he's expected to move in January. But don't count his career as over just yet.
The other half of Borussia Dortmund's young but formidable Bundesliga title-winning central defense alongside fellow top defender Mats Hummels, 22-year-old Neven Subotic has emerged as one of the footballing world's top rising defensive talents.
Over the past several seasons, Subotic has made strides in form and is quickly becoming one of the top defenders in the Bundesliga, if not Europe. Alongside Mats Hummels, he turned heads with his performances for the BVB and helped Jürgen Klopp's side win the league championship for the first time in almost a decade. And although he still shows some inconsistency, his showings with the Serbian national team, which has produced a number of defensive giants, have improved.
A number of clubs reportedly are seeking Subotic out for a January transfer, among them Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, but whether he moves to the Premiership or chooses to stay with the BVB, football fans can certainly expect great things to come from the Serbian centre-back.
If you're not sure why John Terry is on this list, you probably haven't been following football much over the past 15 years. Ever an institution for Chelsea and England, John Terry may not be the same dominant force on the pitch that he was in the height of his career, but he can still make an impact on the pitch.
A one-club man (minus a brief loan spell at Nottingham Forest) and a leader for club and country, few have worn the captain's armband in recent years with the command and skill of the 30-year-old English centre-back. He's a consistent, confident defender who can still take down attackers with ease.
Throughout his illustrious career (although he has made the tabloids for some not-so-illustrious indiscretions), Terry has seen many honors during his time at Chelsea, both club and individual, among them three Premiership titles and four FA Cups. Individually, he's won UEFA Defender of the Year three times and he's been named to the UEFA Team of the Year four times.
And with the Champions League, with Chelsea and Euro and the World Cup with England ever alluding him, it's clear Terry still has some unfinished business to take care of, and there may be more great things to come.
The Ajax defender has emerged as one of the hottest transfer prospects for January, with the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Inter Milan expressing interest in bringing him on. Vertonghen, a 24-year-old Belgian international, has been making some serious strides in the Eredivisie ever since he joined the Amsterdammers at the age of 19.
A gifted, versatile centre-back who is capable of stepping up to other roles in the back four just as easily, Vertonghen has been an impact player in his home country and in the Netherlands (where he became a fan favorite at the Eredivisie club) for a while, and the rest of the world is starting to take notice.
Most recently, he helped lead Ajax to an Eredivisie title and Champions League play, along with a KNVB Cup the season before. He may not be the best defender on this list yet, but his potential and skill make him one of the most exciting.
Versatile wingback Fábio Coentrão, who recently joined Real Madrid on a hefty €30 million transfer, turned heads after two successful seasons at Benfica, which led to back-to-back Portuguese League Cups, a league championship for the Eagles and opportunities for Benfica to flex their defensive muscle on the European stage.
Fearless on the pitch and technically gifted, Coentrão is valued particularly for his ability to progress forward and work up in the midfield as well as in the back four. His impressive performances have drawn comparisons to the likes of Arjen Robben and Real Madrid star Luís Figo, hence his nickname, "Figo de Caxinas."
His performances for Benfica in previous seasons earned him a starting spot on the Portuguese national team, playing in all of their matches during the 2010 World Cup and recently netting his first international goal in a 5-0 victory over Luxembourg.
Now 35 and one of the oldest centre-backs in Serie A, Alessandro Nesta may be on his last season at AC Milan, but he's not slowing down just yet. A member of Pelé's "FIFA 100" and a four-time member of the UEFA Team of the Year, Nesta has helped lead the Rossoneri to two Scudettos, a Coppa Italia, two Supercoppas and two UEFA Champions League titles.
Over the past several seasons, Nesta has formed one of the best defensive partnerships in Europe with fellow centre-back Thiago Silva, and the two conceded only 24 goals in all of last season. He and Silva still constantly make each other better on the pitch, and in turn, make the rest of the squad better.
One of the most fearsome defenders in the game (and also among its most underrated), Pepe's performances in Real Madrid's back four have earned him such flattering Internet nicknames as "The Animal" and "The Butcher."
The Brazilian-born, Portguese international centre-back is absolutely fearless, and although his brazen displays are often more subject to controversy than praise, he is an effective player, particularly when paired with Ricardo Carvalho, and with Real Madrid not exactly short on centre-backs, he is also capable of doing some serious damage to the attack as a defensive midfielder. His performances have helped net two league championships for FC Porto and one for Real Madrid, along with a Supercopa de España and a Copa del Rey for Los Merengues.
A strong, versatile defender who knows how to work the attack, Brazilian veteran Lúcio has been a consistent performer throughout his career. He was instrumental on a treble-winning Inter Milan side and has been a fixture on the Brazilian national team, with more than 100 caps to his name. His aerial ability has been established as among the best in the game, and his leadership on the pitch has granted him the coveted position of captain's armband at Brazil since 2006.
He helped lead Brazil to a World Cup victory in 2002 and two Confederations Cup victories, and more recently, won the treble with Inter Milan in the 2009-2010 season and the Coppa Italia last season. Individually, he was named to the FIFA World XI in 2010. He won a fair play award in the 2009 Confederations Cup, and indeed, his play is among the cleanest for a defender—he holds the World Cup record for most minutes played without committing a foul (386).
Luckily for Real Madrid, his defending abilities far exceed his trophy-holding abilities. Real Madrid and Spain mainstay Sergio Ramos's core attribute is his versatility, as he can excel at right-back or in a central defending role. He is even capable, perhaps even more so, of moving onto the attack and has created quite a few goal opportunities through highly pressurized play.
A determined and forward-thinking full-back, Ramos' boisterous style of play often gets him into trouble (in 2010, he tied the club record for most red cards), but it also often yields results. He continues to be a leader at the Bernabéu and under Vicente del Bosque's Spain side, where he has yielded an enviable trophy cabinet.
He has won La Liga twice with Real Madrid, the Copa del Rey once and the Supercopa de España once, not to mention his stellar track record with Spain as an instrumental part of a side which won the UEFA Euro competition in 2008 and the World Cup in 2010.
There was a time not so long ago where Maicon would have been at the very top of a ranking of the best defenders, but as Inter Milan struggles to reassert itself as a top Serie A side, so has it been with Maicon, who has been shuffled down the pecking order with the Nerrazzuri. Nevertheless, Maicon remains a model modern full-back, and his achievements at the club in recent years are still absolutely worth noting.
A powerful, persistent presence on the pitch and a tireless runner, the Brazilian defender came into his own as one of the Nerazzurri's most dynamic players. He helped lead Inter Milan to an impressive treble in the 2009-2010 season (a Scudetto, the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Champions League) and asserted himself as an impact player in European competition when he scored a crucial goal in an upset over reigning champions Barcelona. He went on to be named Defender of the Year and receive a nomination for the Ballon d'Or for his performances.
Although he'll be sitting on the sidelines for a while following surgery on his Achilles tendon, when he is fit, Thomas Vermaelen is a strong centre-back who has emerged as a team leader and fan favorite at the Emirates.
The "Verminator," as fans like to call him, is unflinching in his level of commitment. He's a strong, capable member of the Gunners' back four who can play at left-back or in the centre, and it took him just over a season to hit 50 appearances for the club.
One of four regular centre-backs for Chelsea, Serbian international Branislav Ivanovic has asserted himself as one of the most well-rounded defenders in the Premiership.
It took Ivanovic a while to get started at Chelsea, but a double against Liverpool in Champions League competition in 2009 won Blues supporters overs and helped jump-start his rise up the defensive ranks. A strong, adaptable defender, Ivanovic has become a reliable fixture at the Stamford Bridge, and his versatility comes in handy, as he can also do well as a defensive midfielder.
Ivanovic was named to the PFA Team of the Year in 2010 and has begun to build a sizable trophy haul at Chelsea, helping the club win the Premiership in 2009-2010 as well as two FA Cups.
A relatively recent emergent force compared to some other names on this list, 22-year-old centre-back Mats Hummels found his form with an excellent season at Borussia Dortmund.
An alumnus of the Bayern Munich youth academy with football in his blood (his mother was a sports journalist, his father, a footballer), Hummels formed a powerful defensive partnership with Neven Subotic and demonstrated versatility, confidence, intelligence and precision in his tackling throughout last season. Hummels also has some strong attributes of an attacker, mostly in his ability to produce headers on goal.
Hummels' performance last season helped the BVB win the Bundesliga championship for the first time in nearly a decade and establish themselves as a top-flight European side, and his stock is rising on the international front as well as Euro 2012 approaches.
His performance often gets overshadowed due to a decrease in quality at Everton, but Leighton Baines is a clear example of a fantastic star at a pretty-OK team. A fixture at Goodison Park, Liverpool native Leighton Baines rose up the ranks at Everton to become one of the Premiership's top defenders and arguably its top left-back.
Since his arrival at Goodison, Baines has improved every season and has been consistently at the top of his game as of late, a tireless presence on the pitch with some serious skill, creativity and ability as a playmaker (he ranked in the top five in the Premiership for assists last season). And his free kicks are impeccable, one in particular which became a goal against Chelsea last season was named by the club as its Goal of the Season.
His prowess with Everton has impressed Fabio Capello, who has given Baines an increasingly important role on the England squad, and it looks like there are more great performances from Baines for the Three Lions to come.
Big, bad Blue Moon captain Vincent Kompany literally towers over the competition, standing at 6'3", as well as metaphorically.
Having already established himself at RSC Anderlecht and Hamburg, Kompany joined Manchester City in 2008 and has since risen up the ranks to become the cornerstone of a revolutionized and rejuvenated Mancunian side. He hit his stride last season with 37 league starts, and a string of consistent, reliable performances eventually led Roberto Mancini to give him the captain's armband, which he wore in that year's FA Cup semi-final victory over crosstown rivals Manchester United.
City would go on to win the FA Cup, and Kompany would end the season with a string of individual awards, including the City Official Supporters' Player of the Year, the PFA Players' Player of the Year and being named to the PFA Team of the Year.
A solid performer at Fluminense and now at AC Milan, centre-back Thiago Silva's strength and consistency often leads him to the top of lists such as these.
Last season, alongside veteran defender Alessandro Nesta, Silva served as half of one of the best central defensive partnerships in Europe and arguably the best in Serie A. His speed, power and ability to keep moving play forward made him a key factor in the Rossoneri's successful season as they took home a Scudetto.
With this season underway, Silva remains a consistently solid performer in Serie A, most recently scoring the equalizing goal in the Rossoneri's Champions League opener against Barcelona on a Clarence Seedorf assist, rescuing AC Milan from defeat and highlighting them as contenders in the competition.
Only 23 and with quite a few seasons left in him, Real Madrid's Marcelo has emerged as one of the top left-backs in the world and a fitting heir-apparent to another Brazilian defensive force who had the position before him at the Bernabéu: Roberto Carlos.
Of course, for a while, it looked as though Marcelo would be phased out as a defender. After a drop in form during the 2009 season, he was transferred to the role of left winger by Juande Ramos. He served well in that position for a while, scoring a string of memorable goals and becoming a key component to Real's wide game, topping La Liga in assists the following season.
More recently, though, under José Mourinho, Marcelo has returned to the position that gave him his start, although his capability of playing both offense and defense on the left side is certainly of merit. His tenacity, versatility and flair on the pitch made him indispensable to Real's defense, and his performance got him into UEFA's starting XI alongside fellow Madridista Mesut Özil at the end of last season. His performance also helped Real Madrid secure a place in the Champions League this season and earn the Copa del Rey.
Now quite a bit older (he's 27) and wiser, the towering Chiellini has emerged from his humble beginnings to become one of the top defenders in Serie A, if not the world. A centre-half who is also capable of playing as a full-back when needed, Chiellini is strong, imposing and tenacious on his guard, not to mention quite the tactician. Now a key figure in a dominant Juventus, Chiellini has been named Serie A Defender of the Year three times throughout his career.
He is also a fixture on the Italian national team, for whom he has 46 caps. He made a breakthrough as a member of Italy's Euro 2008 squad, and although his side was eliminated in the quarterfinals, he fought valiantly against the tournament's most feared attacking duo, Spain's David Villa and Fernando Torres, and helped force the match into penalty kicks.
He was a bright spot in an otherwise fairly disappointing Azzurri squad in South Africa in 2010.
A star at Porto, Chelsea and now the centre of Real Madrid's defense, Ricardo Carvalho has found success all across Europe.
The Portuguese centre-back is a highly physical player, and his style has earned him the label as a master of "the Dark Arts of Defending," or the employment of off-the-ball fouls and similar tactics to deter attackers, which makes him a controversial figure, but the style has worked for him and for Real. His attributes also include his ability to move the ball forward and position himself in the right place at the right time.
His finest hour came in 2004, when he helped lead FC Porto to a UEFA Champions League title, a string of performances which saw him named to the UEFA Team of the Year and earn the UEFA award for Defender of the Year.
Now at the Bernabéu, Carvalho has proved he's still got it, helping solidify Los Merengues' fiery defense, contributing to a Copa del Rey title and a cracking performance in the Champions League. He gave a performance in the first Madrid derby of the season that could be among his career-highlights.
When one of your country's greatest defenders of all time calls you his natural successor, you're probably pretty darn good.
The recently-retired right-back Cafu, an icon in Brazil and world football at large who led his country to victory in two World Cups, had this to say about Dani Alves:
"Without a doubt, he is my natural heir in the Selecao because we have very similar playing styles. And I'm proud that a compatriot is doing so well at a club like Barcelona."
A skilled right-back and a fixture on the Barcelona defense and with the Brazilian national team, Dani Alves arrived at Camp Nou in 2008 on a hefty €32.5 million transfer, breaking previous records for the transfer of a defender. And since then, he's more than returned on Pep Guardiola's investment.
Lauded for his speed and strength and capable of excelling on both sides of the pitch, Dani Alves has become an instrumental part of Barcelona's success in recent years. His first season with the Blaugrana made him a part of the "Best Ever" squad, who won the Spanish treble and then with a FIFA World Cup Club, a Supercopa de España and a European Super Cup, helped make it a sextuple. He followed up two seasons later, helping bring Barcelona another double with victories in La Liga and the UEFA Champions League.
The Bundesliga star captains Bayern Munich, a side with one of the best defensive games in the world right now, so naturally, he had to be near the top.
Philipp Lahm is versatile, excels at getting forward and is known for his ability to move with ease from the flank to the centre of the pitch to keep the ball moving. His timing is top-notch and his tackles are usually precise. Throughout his career, he's helped lead Bayern to the German double—the Bundesliga championship and DFB-Pokal—four times. He's been named to the UEFA Team of the Year twice and the FIFA Team of the Year once. More recently, he's helped Bayern Munich remain unbeaten in Champions League competition and was a key player in their defeat of Manchester City.
His international streak is just as commendable—he's the top choice to lead the German national team, was instrumental in getting them to two respectable third-place finishes in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. This year, he has helped the Germans dominate in the qualifiers for Euro 2012, where they sit high above the rest of Group A, leading runners-up Belgium by 15 points.
For all the criticism out there about Arsenal's defense at the moment, there has still been one defensive weapon this season few can argue with: Bacary Sagna. Unfortunately, Sagna may be out for a while due to an injury sustained during the North London derby, but prior to his injury, he was arguably the best right-back in the Premiership and one of the best in the world. On the Gunners' website, he is referred to as "Mr. Reliable."
Consistent, strong and a diligent tackler, Sagna proved time and time again to be the cornerstone of the Gunners' defense, and his performances are usually blunder-free. Earlier this season, when Kieran Gibbs was injured, he proved he could handle playing on his weaker side when he took over at left-back. And last season, Sagna even managed to land a couple of goals, including a spectacular FA Cup drive against Leeds United during the FA Cup tournament.
Replacing Sagna for the few months he's out of competition will prove a difficult, if not herculean, task for the Gunners, but for his contributions to the club and the Premiership over the past several seasons, Sagna deserves a very high spot on this list.
When up-and-coming Chelsea defender David Luiz was asked how he studies the defensive game, he says he looks to northern rivals Manchester United for inspiration, and one man in particular. He spends hours on end watching Patrice Evra and trying to emulate the moves of the Red Devils' left-back.
Evra had trouble finding his footing at first at Old Trafford after coming over from AS Monaco, but began making his way into the first team with impressive displays and hit a stride toward the end of the season, helping United advance to the semi-finals in 2007.
Now nearing the end of his fifth year with the club, he has proved himself to be, as ESPN calls him, "the classic example of a modern full-back." Having began his career as a forward, Evra offers power and capability of playing both sides, but his prowess is as a full-back, lauded in particular for his great speed, strength and aerial ability.
Of his five seasons so far with United, four have led to the Red Devils lifting a league cup and one a Champions League title, and he was named to the PFA Team of the Year three times for his performances. His international track record is less stellar—although he was given the captain's armband for the 2010 World Cup, France's disastrous performance and his leading the players' strike against manager Raymond Domenech overshadowed the honor bestowed upon him.
Love him or hate him, Ashley Cole is still one of the best left-backs in the world.
A consistent performer, Cole started in all of Chelsea's matches last season and won the Player's Player of the Year award from the club for the second time in his career. He has received consistent accolades for his performances with Chelsea and England, helping lead the Blues to a league title in 2010 and three FA Cups and being named the England Player of the Year in 2010.
His off-the-pitch antics and status as tabloid fodder often overshadow his ability to deliver on the pitch, but nevertheless, Cole is still a core component of Chelsea's defense and one of the top veteran players for the Three Lions.
There are so many great defensive pairings in the world of football right now, but only one was so great that its members had to be listed together, because working in tandem, Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué are a fortress.
It seemed fitting to put the pillars of the Barcelona defense together considering the lethal partnership they have forged since Piqué's arrival at the Camp Nou in 2008. They are at their peak when they play together, and in turn, the team as a whole is improved by their presence. Since Pep Guardiola began managing at Barcelona, the Blaugrana have only lost three matches when the two are in the first team together.
The centre-backs have emerged as two of the best defenders in Europe, and two of the few defenders on this list to complete the career quadruple: La Liga, Copa del Rey, the Champions League title and, with Spain in 2010, the World Cup, where they served their representative country well.
It was a very, very close call, and this list has plenty of great contenders on it, but Vidić takes top honors. He may not be fully fit at the moment, but when he is, the Serbian centre-back is a force to be reckoned with.
Passionate, tenacious and, at times, downright terrifying, Vidić has been a consistent, tireless force at Red Star Belgrade and at Manchester United and has been a vital force in those key, high-tension matches. He's aggressive, unafraid to take risks and has proved to be a great leader at Old Trafford, even donning the captain's armband beginning last season.
Vidić has been named to the Premier League Team of the Year four times so far in his career at United, and another great United centre-back, Gary Pallister, has referred to Vidić as "an absolute rock."
His international track record is also impressive as part of Serbia and Montenegro's "Famous Four," who conceded only one goal during the 2006 World Cup qualifiers. A rock, indeed.